Democrats who several years ago voted to end the government’s green-card giveaways and to institute a point system for selecting some new immigrants are quickly backing away now that President Trump has embraced the idea.
Once a source of consensus for a legal immigration system that all sides agree is broken, the idea of American officials becoming more selective in admittances has become contentious. Democrats say they fear how Mr. Trump would employ stricter selection criteria.
One Democratic leader called it “anti-immigrant,” and another called it a betrayal of the principles of the Statue of Liberty.
The crux of the bill, sponsored by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia and embraced last week at the White House by Mr. Trump, would trim the broad range of family relationships that qualify for immigration and inject a government screen for needed skills and English proficiency into employer immigration.
The bill also would nix the diversity visa lottery that annually doles out some 55,000 green cards — signaling legal permanent immigration — based purely on chance.
All three proposals were staples of the 2007 immigration bill and were again reflected in the 2013 bill backed by Democrats from President Obama down.
“Many people forget that reforming the nation’s broken immigration system to focus on high-skilled labor used to be a non-controversial position,” the White House said in a memo last week. “With Democrats struggling to connect with working-class voters who’ve struggled from stagnating wages for decades, maybe they should take a page from themselves.”
The president cast his hard line against illegal immigration as a matter of public safety, while his push for stricter limits to legal immigration he says is a way to protect American workers from competition.
Mr. Trump’s backing for the bill, after his divisive presidential campaign, has helped spur a feverish backlash among congressional Democrats and immigrant rights activists, who vow to resist the proposed changes.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the legislation was part of “a hateful, senseless anti-immigrant agenda that instills fear.” Some activists said Mr. Trump was embracing a “white nationalist” agenda by supporting the immigration bill.
“This isn’t about making America great again; it’s about making America white again,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund. “This is identity politics at its worst. And from both a policy and political perspective, decidedly un-American.”
But Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the main parts of the bill match the recommendations of the Clinton-era Commission on Immigration Reform, known more colloquially as the Jordan Commission, after the late Barbara Jordan, a prominent black liberal congresswoman who led the panel.
“Was Barbara Jordan a white nationalist? Was she a hater? Of course not. She was a patriotic American who was a liberal Democrat,” said Mr. Krikorian, who backs stricter immigration limits.
The Perdue-Cotton bill, formally known as the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE Act, calls for trimming the extent of immigration based on family ties to spouses, children who are minors and, in limited cases, parents. That would eliminate siblings and adult children from the queue. The overall number of family visas also would be lowered.
Employment-based green cards would be changed with a point system to select immigrants. Preference would go to those with key skills who can demonstrate an ability to be financially independent and who show proficiency in English.
An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute said the point system was a small change, bringing in a slightly more skilled workforce than present, but the changes to family immigration by limiting sponsorships would be major.
“For the family-based system, halving the numbers would come at the strong price of reducing opportunities for family unity, a deeply rooted value in U.S. immigration history,” the think tank said in its analysis.
Democrats have embraced a point system in the past as part of broader deals to legalize most illegal immigrants.
In 2007, a point system was at the heart of the immigration bill worked out by President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. That bill also dramatically cut the number of family members who could be sponsored for future migration.
Among those who voted for the 2007 bill were Mr. Obama, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, current Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and his chief lieutenant Sen. Richard J. Durbin, and 13 other current Democratic senators.
The Senate’s 2013 immigration bill, worked out by four Democrats and four Republicans and backed by Mr. Obama, included scaled-down versions of the point system and slimmer family migration.
That bill garnered support of every Democrat in the Senate.
Both the 2007 and 2013 bills also eliminated the diversity visa lottery. Lawmakers at the time agreed that the country’s immigration system was expansive enough that the lottery system was no longer needed.
A stand-alone bill to cut the diversity lottery and to pump those visas back into high-skilled programs also cleared the Republican-led House in 2012, with 27 Democrats and most Republicans voting for it.
Mr. Krikorian said the change in Democrats’ attitude stems from anti-Trump sentiment — “anything Trump is for, they have to be against” — and from changing politics within the Democratic Party, where individual immigration programs now have key constituents as backers.
The diversity visa lottery is a favorite of the Congressional Black Caucus, which argues that it’s one way to boost immigration from African countries underrepresented elsewhere in the immigration system.
Meanwhile, the lines of extended family immigration are defended by Asian advocacy groups who see their communities as major beneficiaries of allowing immigrants to sponsor siblings for future immigration.
Democrats aren’t the only ones to undergo a shift on immigration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, voted for a 2006 bill that would have granted a swift path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants before switching sides a year later and voting against the 2007 bill.
So did Sens. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two other Republicans still in the chamber, also switched from yes to no. Both then switched back to yes votes in 2013.
Mr. Trump has been on all sides of the immigration issue, blasting competition that foreign workers represent — though the first lady was a guest worker who came to the U.S. on an H-1B visa, and Mr. Trump’s business empire regularly makes use of guest workers to fill jobs.
Mr. Schumer said that exposed “a stunning hypocrisy at the core” of Mr. Trump’s immigration plans.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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